2024
  • Non-ICIMOD publication

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Evidence of human influence on Northern Hemisphere snow loss

  • Alexander R. Gottlieb
  • Justin S. Mankin
  • Summary

Documenting the rate, magnitude and causes of snow loss is essential to benchmark the pace of climate change and to manage the differential water security risks of snowpack declines1,2,3,4. So far, however, observational uncertainties in snow mass5,6 have made the detection and attribution of human-forced snow losses elusive, undermining societal preparedness. Here we show that human-caused warming has caused declines in Northern Hemisphere-scale March snowpack over the 1981–2020 period. Using an ensemble of snowpack reconstructions, we identify robust snow trends in 82 out of 169 major Northern Hemisphere river basins, 31 of which we can confidently attribute to human influence. Most crucially, we show a generalizable and highly nonlinear temperature sensitivity of snowpack, in which snow becomes marginally more sensitive to one degree Celsius of warming as climatological winter temperatures exceed minus eight degrees Celsius. Such nonlinearity explains the lack of widespread snow loss so far and augurs much sharper declines and water security risks in the most populous basins. Together, our results emphasize that human-forced snow losses and their water consequences are attributable—even absent their clear detection in individual snow products—and will accelerate and homogenize with near-term warming, posing risks to water resources in the absence of substantial climate mitigation.